Posts Tagged ‘How-to’

On a recent podcast of Writing Excuses, specifically Season 8 Episode 17: Microcasting, Mary Kowal explained her process for using Alpha and Beta readers. There are many, many ways to do this but I found her method very instructive. Here are my notes:

  • Alpha readers receive chapters one at a time, and stay about two chapters behind where Mary is currently writing her work-in-progress (WIP).
  • Beta readers receive her WIP all in one chunk. They focus on the work as a whole. Mary asks them to essentially flag problems by identifying:
    • areas that Bore them,
    • areas that Confuse them,
    • things they don’t Understand,
    • things they don’t Believe, and
    • things that are Cool (so she doesn’t change them and remove the coolness factor).
  • Editors, Agents, and other Industry Professionals see Mary’s WIPs only after going through this process so they can be in as final a state as possible.

In the podcast Mary promised to share a link to an external source and she did: Alpha-Reading by Laura A. Christensen. This excellent post details the things a writer needs to know from their readers:

  1. Clarity.  Do you understand what is going on? Can you picture the setting and the characters in your head? Can you see where everyone is in relationship to each other?  Was the fight scene confusing? Is my word choice obscure?
  2. Impact.  Was this part funny or did it fall flat?  Do you like these characters at this moment? Are you frustrated with them? Do you love them? Are you afraid? Is this intense? Are you bored? Do you wish you could stop reading? Do you feel like you’re there with the characters?  Was this part a tear-jerker or were you annoyed?  Was the ending satisfying or did I drop the ball?
  3. Believability.  How are my characters’ reactions? Does this feel plausible to you?  Is this the way you handle a gun in your experience?  Do I need to do further research about xyz?  Does my fight scene feel real? Does this fit together and make sense?
  4. Interest.  Does this fascinate you the way it fascinates me?  Are you hooked?  Is this too much detail or not enough?

All in all, this seems like sage advice. Thanks to both for sharing.

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[Author’s Note: This post is now outdated. Read the expanded and updated version.]

It’s an age-old problem: How to share information in a novel without readers picking up on your clues until the reveal at the end. Here are some strategies I’ve picked up on:

  1. Hide clues in plain sight.
    • Duh. Most people are not that observant and rarely see what is right in front of their face.
    • If you can include information in the form of a list, always bury the most important part in the middle. People remember the last thing in a list best, the first next-best, and the middle last.
  2. Share clues out of order.
    • If you know that John has access to Love Potion #9 (A), Love Potion #9 actually causes explosions (B), and an explosion destroyed headquarters (C),  then it’s reasonable to conclude that John is responsible for blowing up HQ (A -> B -> C). Many crimes in detective novels are constructed by the writer this way whereas the hero often learns A, B, and C in REVERSE order. The crime (C) comes first, then the method (B), and is only connected with the culprit (A) at the end.
    • The drawback of this method is that it excludes any kind of surprise ending! The solution is to mix up the order. Share (C) and (A) with your reader but withhold the crucial (B) that links the two until the end to stretch out suspense or setup a twist ending.
    • For longer chains of clues (A -> B -> C -> D -> E, for example) you can get very, very creative. Just don’t get so complicated that readers can’t follow the chain.
  3. Establish a secondary purpose for something already explained.
    • In the book Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card, the mind game program that Ender periodically interacts with is used to explain how the buggers communicate with Ender at the end of the book. However in the sequel, it must ALSO be the source for a sentient computer program.
    • We humans like our loose ends packaged up into nice, neat little containers. Card surprises us by killing two birds with one stone. It’s efficient and it’s always unexpected when done right.
  4. Share something innocuous that has important consequences when taken to its logical conclusion.
    • In Agatha Christie‘s murder mystery play The Mousetrap, information is shared with the audience at the beginning. Taken at face value, it tells the viewer nothing but at the end of the novel it is used to explain everything.

Note that you can also combine these techniques for even better results. For example, place a shotgun on the back wall in your opening scene (hidden in plain sight). Readers won’t be looking for a gun (shared out of order) until someone gets shot in chapter 4, but you can bet they’ll remember it’s there in the last chapter if you’ll only remind them where it was the whole time.

Get creative!

Image Source: http://www.thejakartaglobe.com/artsandentertainment/cyrils-magical-mystery-tour/338627

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Source: How To Title Your Book – Rachelle Gardner, Literary Agent

Rachelle’s Instructions as gleaned from her post.

  1. Identify the feeling or tone you want to convey based on the genre of your book. Write it down. Be clear on what your title needs to instantly communicate.
  2. Find twenty books on Amazon that are in the same genre as yours and whose titles you like. Write down their titles. Try to get a feel for what works with your genre. What do you like about the titles? What don’t you like? Then put the list away for awhile.
  3. Sit with a pencil and paper (and maybe your critique group and a white-board) and free-associate, making lists of words related to your book. Put them in columns: nouns, verbs, adjectives. Nothing is off limits. Brainstorm until you have at least 100 words.
  4. See if any of the words would work as a single-word title. Then start experimenting with different word combinations. Adjective-noun, verb-noun. Keep a thesaurus handy and look up other words. Write down as many word combinations as you can. Try not to self-censor at this stage.
  5. From these lists, come up with at least 20 possible titles. Then put them away for 24 hours.
  6. Go back to your title list. Add any new ideas you’ve had. Then narrow it down to three to five possibilities.
  7. Run them by a few people. (This may or may not help.)
  8. Take a little more time before narrowing it down to one. If you can, wait another day or two.
  9. Go back to your list of titles from Amazon. Ask yourself if the title you’ve chosen would fit the list—without being too similar or generic.
  10. Once you’ve made a decision — celebrate!

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